Instrument techni­cian creates pipes in spare time

Chris Thile, instrument technician at Murray State works on a new pipe in his garage. His pipes are all handmade and the prices range anywhere from about $300 to $685. || Maddie Mucci/The News

Chris Thile, instrument technician at Murray State works on a new pipe in his garage. His pipes are all handmade and the prices range anywhere from about $300 to $685. || Maddie Mucci/The News

Professors and their Hobbies is a series that profiles various Murray State professors who have unique hobbies. This is the second installment.

Filled with melodies from every direction, the halls of the music department hold the sounds of perfectly in-tune instruments. These tools are not self-fixing, or even tuned by house elves. They are repaired by Murray State’s very own instrument technician, Scott Thile from Los Angeles, Calif.

The students who roam the music department know Thile does the repairs and even sometimes rebuilds the pianos, but what they may not know is Thile has a business making and selling smoking pipes.

Thile’s interest in making smoking pipes derived from his love for both repairing pianos and woodworking.

“I really enjoyed woodworking and then I’ve always smoked a pipe since I was pretty young, like 16 or 17,” Thile said. “In the back of my mind as I was doing woodworking I thought, ‘Oh, it’d be really fun to try and make a pipe just to smoke myself and see what it was like to have a pipe that I made myself.’ So, about seven years ago I made my first pipe from scratch.”

The smoking pipe business immerged as more than just another way to generate income for Thile. The process of smoking pipes quickly became one of Thile’s many passions.

“I just absolutely love making pipes,” Thile said. “It is the most fun thing I get to do right now. There are a lot of different things I get to do, but making smoking pipes is probably the most relaxing and enjoyable. So, anytime I’m not working at school or playing music, usually most all weekends and evenings, I’m usually out here in my garage making pipes.”

After initially using books and the Internet to learn how to make smoking pipes, Thile began to seek out apprenticeships with skilled pipe makers to improve his pipe- making skills.

“About three years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Nashville and work with a couple of pipe makers that are really good,” Thile said. “Their pipes are super well-respected internationally and they sell for lots of money. They were really great just with showing me different things over the few days I got to work with them. I’ve gotten to do that a couple of times, and over Christmas break I’m going to North Carolina to work with a pipe maker that uses a type of bamboo that I’d like to learn about. I learn different pipe making techniques through informal, short apprenticeship type learning – I just find people that know more about it than me and learn from them.”

Thile’s garage workshop holds several sanding machines, samples of his pipes, cans of tobacco, stain and wax for the outer coating of the pipes, and even small tools for the individual pipe’s detailing. The items in the workshop have a purpose for each aspect of Thile’s smoking pipe construction process.

“I have a box of wood sorted in various ways and there are two ways I’ll approach making the pipe,” Thile said. “I may start with a shape in mind that I want to do and then find a block that will be particularly conducive to that shape. Other times I look at the block of wood and just let the block of wood give me the shape by looking at the grain in the wood. I like to do all of the shaping first.”

Thile explained that after he finishes shaping the pipe and drilling the holes for the tobacco chamber and draft hole, he has to complete the most nerve wracking part of the process, adding his personal stamp.

His stamp includes his name, the year, the number of the pipe and the type of pipe. The pipe could have “FH” stamped on it for “freehand” meaning the block of wood governed the shape of the pipe, or it could have the specific model abbreviation stamped on it if the pipe was a usual style.

Each pipe can take anywhere from ten hours to more than twenty hours depending on the type of smoking pipe.

“As I do more and more pipe making I’m more efficient,” Thile said. “At first I would work for maybe 30 or 40 hours and have a completely ugly pipe, now they’re getting better and I’m able to make them a little bit quicker.”

Ranging between about $300 and $685, Thile’s pipes have increased in price as he has steadily improved his pipe making skills. He said his pipes are in the middle range of handmade pipes, considering he has yet to compete with the $15,000 pipes sold by well-known pipe makers from Denmark.

“They’ve gotten up from being the very cheapest of pipes, but some of them are still pretty inexpensive depending on where you go,” Thile said. “My pipes are fairly affordable for a lot of people that really like to smoke nice pipes, but also enjoy the looking aspect as well.”

Thile has sold pipes to people in Italy, Gemany, Japan and China, but he said most of his pipes are bought by American pipe collectors through his website and attending pipe shows.

“Going to pipe shows is really neat because famous pipe makers will be there and they’re usually happy to give you advice of how to make your pipes better,” Thile said, smiling.

“Pipe shows also provide the opportunity to hang out with people that like pipes, so you’re smoking and sharing stories – there is a lot of real camaraderie and that is neat. Pipe smokers are often really interesting people; they’re thoughtful and seem to be comfortable with being a little different from other people. They’re just fun to talk to and hang out around.”

Thile said attending pipe shows has given him the chance to experience some of his proudest moments as a handcrafted smoking pipe maker and seller.

“Sometimes sitting around at a pipe show, smoking pipes, you see somebody smoking one of your pipes and they’ll say how well it smokes,” Thile said. “That’s pretty fun just getting to see that happen.”

Thile credits the benefits that have come from pipe making to his willingness to take risks and not always pursue what would make the most money, but being able to pursue what he found interesting or exciting.

Thile encourages students to pursue their life dreams no matter how difficult or unrealistic they seem in the present time, and advises them to seek advice and knowledge from individuals who have more information on the personal goal than the students have.

“There are things that are really exciting to (each student) and they may or may not be what you want to do for a living, or what you think you should do for a living,” Thile said, “But they might make your life more interesting and enjoyable and fulfilling.”

After making 217 pipes over the past seven years of pursuing one of his personal life dreams, Thile would like to encourage students to dive into their goals just as readily.

“Don’t be satisfied with things that aren’t as much fun, or that don’t excite you – if there’s a thing that that makes you excited just dive in and pursue it,” Thile said. “(Murray State students) are at points in their lives where that is just wide open to them. There are all these exciting things happening for those who pursue those interests with a passion. I’d encourage (students) to absolutely go for that.”

Learn more about Thile’s smoking pipes by visiting his website at sethilepipes.com.

Story by Maddie Mucci, Staff writer.